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  • Should we fear a world without books?

    Critics of the digital revolution warn that we're racing headlong into a world without books. I'm a big book fan myself, yet I wonder, as I read their critiques on my computer, is that such a bad thing?

    After all, no technology is forever. Remember 8-track? Betamax? Writing technology moves on, too. The book replaced the scroll. The scroll replaced the clay tablet. Before that, there were inscribed tokens and oracle bones. And if e-text is crowding out conventional print, isn't digitizing just another, newer way to represent the written word? Maybe it's time to shelve that book and move on.

    Not according to the defenders of printed books, who believe that the written word comes to life only on physical pages, preferably pages bound together in book form – objects that readers can touch, heft and savor; objects that take more than thirty seconds to read; objects that force us to think about what they mean. In comparison, virtual words are just shadow writing.

    Books give hour after hour of enlightenment, whereas reading on screen, with its short texts, distracting graphics, and click-me hyperlinks, is no substitute for the quiet, sustained, reflective reading that is the special province of analog books.

    There's some truth in these arguments, but only some.

    Certainly we value the printed book, not just as an artifact, but as the perfect manifestation of the word. But it wasn't always so. Plato objected when writing first appeared that it was flawed, untrustworthy, and distracting. In the Phaedrus, he claims that writing isn't even real language, just its shadow.

    In that dialogue, Socrates warns Phaedrus that writing will weaken human memory, an older and more dependable source of truth. We remember this because Plato wrote it down.

    Worse still, Socrates charges that writing isn't interactive. He calls text "dumb," incapable of speech. The written word can never answer questions or explain itself the way a real speaker might. At best it's frozen speech, condemned – programmed, we might say – to repeat the same message in an endless loop. No curling up with some warm hemlock and a scroll for Socrates. He wants all dialogue, all the time.

    David's  

    Socrates condemned the new technology of writing, but it was his spoken words that got him in hot water. [Jacques-Louis David's painting, the Death of Socrates, 1787]

    As it turned out, Plato was wrong, and writing earned an honored place in human communication. Still, each new writing technology that came along brought more objections. We don't really know how readers of clay tablets reacted to the new-fangled scroll. Perhaps they objected that scrolls made writing too easy, just splash some words on the dried-up skins of dead animals (yuck), and you're good to go. In contrast, carving text into clay is real work, calling for careful planning and some actual muscle. A world without clay tablets? Unimaginable.

    Long after clay writing disappeared, maybe aficionados of the scroll warned that the next technology, the bound book, was too distracting. Books forced you to stop reading at the end of every page and turn over a new leaf, by which time you'd already forgotten the plot. Only scrolls, with their pages sewn end-to-end, could provide an uninterrupted reading experience. But readers of long scrolls eventually learned to read long books instead.

    Then came the printing press, and printed books replaced the handwritten kind, but the we-like-handwriting-better crowd still protests that only the pen can directly connect writer, page, and reader, while the printing press disrupts that vital metaphysical circuit. Yet today, more and more writers are throwing away their pens because, for them, the keyboard provides a more direct path from brain to text than pen or pencil ever could.

    Admittedly, reading is different from writing, and even born-keyboarders prefer reading books on the page, not the screen. But if we really shun reading on screen so much, why is it that the briefest network crash makes us feel cut off from the world of digitized words we've come to depend on? And why are we surfing and texting on our mobile phones more than we talk? Surely it's time to admit that e-text is already doing what other technologies of text have done before: monopolizing our attention, pushing aside the old ways.

    I'm also not convinced that the quality of onscreen reading differs significantly from conventional reading. Yes, many online texts are short – a screenful or less – and many online readers skim them, jump from item to item, scroll down, click a link, read a bit, and then move on. But this is hardly evidence of computer-generated ADD, since we learned such nonlinear reading from our encounters with print materials like newspapers, magazines, and reference works. There's nothing about computer technology to discourage sustained, reflective, linear reading, except perhaps a shortage of digitized books to read and reflect on.

    Conversely, there's nothing about the printed book that shouts, "Attention must be paid." Even when we're wide awake and concentrating, the mind does wander, and whether it's a best-selling page-turner or an assigned textbook, every reader knows the experience of getting five pages further along, with no recollection of reading the intervening words, or even turning the pages. As Plato might have put it, even Homer nods.

    Place us in front of the e-text of Paradise Lost or Bleak House, and we might cry "Eye strain!" or "Carpal tunnel!" But we're still willing to spend hours at the screen devouring the news, browsing the Web, emailing, chatting, Facebooking – all activities that require sustained, and occasionally, reflective, reading.

    Don't worry. A world without books isn't exactly right around the corner. Although the internet is expanding exponentially, most of the world's population doesn't yet have access to computers – or the electricity to drive them, or even literacy itself. Our oil supplies will disappear long before our books.

    I'm still comforted by the books that line my study, that pile up on my nightstand, that sprawl across the floor. I still read many of them. But I also curl up on the couch with my laptop every day to read texts long and short, serious and trivial, required and voluntary.

    And I've gone through enough communication technologies – processing words with fountain pens and ball points, typewriters manual and electric, microfilm and -fiche, dittomaster, mimeograph, photostat and photocopy, as well as desk tops, laptops, and mobile phones – to make me think that if our bookshelves do eventually empty out, it won't be because we’ve stopped reading books at all, but because we've simply opted to read them, and reflect on them, in yet another technological incarnation.

    Apple Computer display with the slogan  

    Apple Store or Plato's Cave? Apple's advertising campaign claimed that MacBooks are the only books we need. As if to confirm the brave new world without books, the bookshelves in the background are a backdrop, a digital image of a library, not the real thing.

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